Better job situation gives Smith opportunity to return to coaching with Oxbow boys hoop

  • Thetford coach Justin Smith can't keep his feet on the ground as he joins his team in the locker room celebrating their semifinal playoff win in Barre, Vt., on March 17, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news file — James M. Patterson

  • Thetford Academy boys basketball coach Justin Smith, right, confers with his players during practice on March 16, 2011. From left are Dominic Chatot, Ben Stearns, Bradley Perry, Patrick Eaton and Ian Weider. (Valley News - Jenna Schoenefeld) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jenna Schoenefeld

  • Jackson Balch

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 11/16/2020 8:16:27 PM
Modified: 11/16/2020 8:16:23 PM

BRADFORD, Vt. — For all of his past success as a high school basketball coach, it took a change of jobs before Justin Smith could get back to the sidelines again.

Smith recently assumed the reins of the Oxbow High boys hoop program, returning to the school for which he toiled when he was a teenage athlete. Smith has wanted to get back to coaching for a while, something life has made impossible.

But with a more friendly work schedule, Smith felt the moment was right to step up from the Olympians’ junior varsity after varsity coach Steve Carson decided to step down.

“It’s been too long since they’ve seen success,” the 1999 Oxbow graduate said in a phone interview last week. “I’m just an Oxbow boy that wants to see success for this community. They’ve raised too many good kids. They work hard at it. It’s what motivates me, for these guys to be successful for this community and this school.”

Smith played for the late Robert “Stretch” Gillam at Oxbow and was influenced enough by the experience to want to try coaching when he got older. He took his first opportunity when Thetford Academy athletic director Dave McGinn — himself a past Oxbow coach — lured Smith over to guide the Panther boys in 2009.

Smith and TA enjoyed a fair amount of success over four years, going 53-38 and making two VPA Division III championship games. Smith had to balance coaching with a bread delivery business that often saw him waking up before 3 a.m. and putting in a full day of work before joining TA for either games, practices or chances to scout future foes.

“I can remember standing (in Barre Auditorium) after we lost,” Smith said, referencing the Panthers’ D-III title-game loss to Williamstown in 2013. “I had mono really bad; I didn’t know it, and it was probably a month before I was diagnosed, but I’d had it for the last month of the season. … I’d get home and never felt like, at times, that I was as good as some of the other coaches that I coached against.

“I had a bunch of players that I cared for, so I felt I had to scout and practice-plan, that I had to outwork the other coaches. To do all that was so exhausting, just not in a bad way.”

Aside from a one-year fill-in hoops stint with the Woodstock girls in 2015-16, Smith limited his coaching to the youth levels. A job change — he’s now the warehouse manager for Bradford’s Valley Floors — produced better hours and the flexibility to resume high school coaching, which he did last winter by taking over Carson’s junior varsity.

It’s been a while since the Olympians enjoyed boys basketball success. Carson’s squads occasionally hovered around the .500 mark but never surmounted it; he went 43-84 over six seasons. Oxbow last posted a winning record in 2001-02 and hasn’t ranked higher than sixth in any VPA state tournament in 20 years.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has handed Smith an opportunity. He begins workouts on Nov. 30, and he’ll have six weeks to work with the Olympians before a scheduled Jan. 11 start of games. Priority No. 1: improving a defense that surrendered more than 61 points per game last season.

“We’re going to be fine developing,” Smith said. “They’ll be learning my terminology, my rotations, the way we run practices. I’ll be doing it so that it’s easier for my players to stay engaged than some traditional coaches who have their ways developed.”

Bestowed on Balch: Hartford High senior Jackson Balch has earned a pair of awards for his athletic and academic efforts.

Balch was one of two Vermont state winners of the High School Heisman Scholarship Award, given to a senior male and female student-athlete in each state. The award requires applicants to be recommended by their athletic department, maintain a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, be a proven leader within their schools and communities, and play at least one of 48 recognized sports.

Balch just completed a successful football season for the Hurricanes, adapting well from his offensive lineman duties to the VIFL’s seven-on-seven campaign. Balch, who also plays hockey and lacrosse at Hartford, caught 40 passes for 511 yards and four touchdowns for the 8-2 Canes, who reached their area semifinal. He received a $750 scholarship for his High School Heisman recognition.

Balch was also chosen as a Vermont scholar-athlete by the Great American Rivalry Series.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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